How do you provide care to underserved patients who have difficulty getting to the office? This was the challenge we were trying to solve at the Clark Clinic. Some of our patients don’t have access to a vehicle or are physically restricted and unable to travel far. But, as most of our community is underserved, we needed to collectively identify a solution to ensure we can serve all our patients.
I knew from conversations with other healthcare executives that telemedicine was the solution. I recently learned of a pediatrics office in Jacksonville that uses telemedicine to serve its ADHD patients better. Like the Clark Clinic, its patients found it difficult to comply with required visits. Telemedicine allowed ADHD patients to conduct their appointments remotely. Rates of visit compliance skyrocketed. We realized then that telemedicine technology would be ideal for a rural community.
We have experienced seismic shifts in the popularity of telemedicine. Technology has largely influenced every aspect of our society. With instant access to every component of life, people are developing a dependence on technology. In healthcare, patients want easy and efficient access to healthcare, without having to wait for hours in the office. After a telemedicine visit, they are convinced of its value. The process is simple — download the healow TeleVisits app and schedule an appointment. There is no doubt patient satisfaction has improved.
At the Clark Clinic, our slogan is “We are wherever you are” and telehealth allows us to provide the same level of care no matter where our patients are located. With multiple clinics across central Florida, our doctors are often on the road. There have been various situations where patients had urgent visits but couldn’t be seen because our doctor was miles away. But with telemedicine, the doctor can schedule a remote appointment and conduct and treat patients in need while maintaining the established provider-patient relationship. Amazingly, our physicians have even noted that in most cases they are able to make accurate judgments, all from observing a patient’s speech, breathing, motions, and mood.
Our patients who reside at local assisted living facilities also love the convenience of telemedicine. These individuals appreciate the ability to download the app directly onto their phone or tablet and schedule an appointment with their doctor. Typically, they take the call in their room, and all their health questions are quickly answered. We’ve also heard from their families and loved ones, who enjoy the reassurance that, with telehealth, the level of care never wavers and access to quality care is not limited.
Rural healthcare organizations and their patients are up against a myriad of challenges, from minimal funding and resources to limited access to care, social determinants of health, and more barriers that stand in the way of effective care delivery. Unfortunately, nearly half of rural hospitals operate at a negative margin and are struggling to survive, according to iVantage’s 2017 Rural Relevance Study.
The number of rural hospital closures has risen to 87 in the last eight years, according to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA). The closures create a large gap in healthcare resources available in rural communities, as the residents cannot always drive or fly great distances to access needed care. Virtual care technology can address gaps in care and help rural providers continue to deliver care for the vast populations and geographies they support.
Increased re-admission rates amongst rural patients are driven by inadequate care and support after the patient returns home. Home health organizations now play a critical role in helping hospitals reduce these rates by providing care to rural patients, especially during the initial thirty days after discharge. Home health organizations are actively implementing virtual care platforms to automate the post-discharge follow-up with a rural patient by sending reminders to schedule appointments for post-discharge virtual visits via the communication channel of the patient’s choice – e.g., text, SMS, email or even a phone call. Follow-up care can be provided in a cost-effective video call (for home health providers and patients) which optimizes the caregiver’s productivity by minimizing excessive transportation time, travel costs and related liabilities typically associated with driving to/from patient homes.
To help home health agencies, there has been a longstanding Medicare rural add-on for home health services. Federal add-on payments through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have been crucial to these agencies operating in rural regions of the country. The 3 percent payment modifier to reimbursements for services provided in rural and underserved areas helps these agencies which face higher overhead expenses through factors such as increased travel time between patient visits and demands for extra staff. This payment modifier is imperative so that rural agencies will be able to keep their doors open and provide necessary care to home-bound patients.
However, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed payment rules which may impact the delivery of home health care in rural communities. The shift was mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Under the new methodology, CMS is varying add-on amounts depending on a rural county’s home health utilization, population density and other factors. Unlike the current standard of a 3 percent three percent rural add-on, CMS’s proposed payment rule segments counties into “high utilization,” “low population density” and “all other” categories:
High-utilization counties are “rural counties and equivalent areas in the highest quartile of all counties and equivalent areas based on the number of Medicare home health episodes furnished per 100 individuals who are entitled to, or enrolled for, benefits under part A of Medicare or enrolled for benefits under part B of Medicare only, but not enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan under part C of Medicare.” Low population-density counties are designated due to their population density of six individuals or fewer per square mile of land. The all-other category includes counties and areas that don’t fit into either definition.
Although life in rural communities offers many advantages, the rural healthcare system in America faces challenges not seen in urban areas, for obvious reason: population loss, poverty and access to healthcare have been problematic in recent years.
Taking a look at Pennsylvania, which is the sixth most populous and ninth most densely populated state in the US, based on information from the United States Census Bureau from 2010 and 2013, as a state it hosts a significant amount of rural areas. According to the Pennsylvania Rural Health Association, 48 of its 67 counties classified as rural, and all but two counties have rural areas. More than one quarter of Pennsylvanians live in rural counties.
Thus, it’s as good a place as any to examine some of the unique issues facing rural communities, who even though they may be within driving distance to some of the best medical care in the world, they are unable to access it each day without some sort of life altering obstacle.
In general, residents of rural communities in the U.S. are less healthy than those in urban environments. According to Unite for Sight, “rural residents smoke more, exercise less, have less nutritional diets and are more likely to be obese than suburban residents.” Already against the odds, residents in rural Pennsylvania face several specific problems that jeopardize the state of healthcare in the area.
Between 2000 and 2010, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that rural Pennsylvania counties grew by 2.2 percent while urban counties grew by 3.9 percent. However, the small increase in rural counties was only because of the eastern counties. Western rural counties decreased by 0.9 percent, and by another 0.5 percent from 2010 to 2012.
In some places, the situation is bleak. The newspaper highlights the population loss in Taylor Township, a part of Lawrence County that experienced a 13.6 percent population loss from 2000 to 2010. “Of its 1,052 residents, more than twice as many are over age 65 as under 18. That ratio is practically unheard of among municipalities and doesn’t bode well for the township’s future.”